The Hot Stove has officially been ignited. Two weeks after the conclusion of the G.M. meetings, and a couple weeks prior to the winter meetings, the Red Sox started reconfiguring their roster for the 2009 season.
One month after they were eliminated in Game 7 of the ALCS by the Rays, Wednesday’s trade of outfielder Coco Crisp to the Royals in exchange for reliever Ramon Ramirez offered some sense of the direction that the offseason is starting to take. Here is a look at the different pieces of Boston’s offseason puzzle that were impacted by the deal:
Coco Crisp made the best of an imperfect situation in 2008. The centerfielder made no secret of his desire to be an everyday player somewhere rather than a fourth outfielder in Boston, but he did not raise a stink about the situation.
Instead, he was pleasantly surprised by how well the situation worked out. Thanks to injuries to David Ortiz and J.D. Drew, as well as the need to offer regular rest to teammate Jacoby Ellsbury, Crisp had more than 400 plate appearances this year.
Even so, there was no guarantee that a similar rash of injuries would create a similar opportunity for him in 2009. That being the case, his preference to be traded to a team that would permit him to resume his career as a starter was understandable.
“I’m getting an opportunity to show everybody exactly what I’m capable of,” said Crisp. “I’m happy for that opportunity.”
Crisp described his experience in Boston as “bittersweet.” The opportunity to play for a World Series winner and in a baseball-crazed market were unquestionable positive experiences.
Still, there was a sense of some disappointment with how the tenure had gone. When he arrived, he was coming into his own as a member of the Indians, but things got off to an ominous start when he broke his left index finger in his first week with the Red Sox. From there, he dealt with a variety of injuries that limited his performance, as Crisp hit .271 with a .330 OBP and .390 slugging mark with the Sox.
“It was a learning experience, definitely. That’s first and foremost how I’d classify it,” said Crisp. “On the field and off the field, it helped me grow. The one negative aspect that came out of the whole thing was that I was plagued by nagging injuries pretty much the whole time I was there, except a month here and a month there and towards the end of (the 2008) season.
“It’s been an up and down ride,” he said. “Most of the time, I’ve enjoyed myself over there, even though it was difficult.”
The Royals acquired Crisp–a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder in 2007–to chase balls in their vast centerfield expanse. They plan to feature either Crisp or David DeJesus as their leadoff hitter.
“He’s somebody who has a lot of experience. He’s been a part of championship teams. The ability to play centerfield and have success at the top of the lineup was big for us,” said Royals G.M. Dayton Moore. “Centerfield is a very important position, even moreso in our ballpark. It’s a huge ballpark. There’s not a lot of homeruns hit here…We felt Coco Crisp was the best player available to us in centerfield.”
In Ramon Ramirez, the Sox acquire a pitcher who was an outstanding but unheralded setup man in 2008. He features a fastball that typically registers in the low-90s but that touches as high as 95 as well as a slider, but it is his changeup–which acts like a split-finger fastball–that generates ample swings and misses.
“We believe we’ve acquired a young, controllable reliever that can really help our bullpen,” said Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “He’s very quietly had a tremendous amount of success in the major leagues…We were looking for that kind of upgrade and depth.”
Indeed, the Sox were negotiating with both the Royals and Reds in recent days to see whether they could leverage Crisp into a bullpen upgrade. The Sox determined that Ramirez best fit that profile.
The 27-year-old spent much of the year pitching in the eighth inning for the Royals. He went 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 71.2 innings this year while holding opposing hitters to a miniscule .222 average.
Ramirez was even more devastating against right-handed hitters, whom he held to a .153 average (lowest in the A.L. and third lowest in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 games). Only the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol (.103) and Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge (.105) ranked higher. In his career he has held righties to a .198 average with an OPS of .586.
He has a 2.14 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 44 walks in 105.0 career innings outside of Coors Field. In 2008, Ramirez was one of just three A.L. relievers with at least 70 strikeouts, 70 appearances and an ERA under 3.00, joining Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez and Chicago’s Matt Thornton.
“You need to give up something to get something,” said Moore, who acquired Ramirez from the Rockies this spring in exchange for former Sox prospect Jorge De La Rosa. “He's a very poised person, an extremely confident person, a very diligent worker. Our people even felt he might be able to close at some point in time in his career. He’s a good pitcher.”
In one sense, nothing has changed about Justin Masterson’s role. He remains the most flexible resource that the Red Sox have. The acquisition of Ramirez only enhances that stature.
Masterson can start. He can relieve. With Ramirez on board, the Sox have tremendous freedom to deploy the right-handed sinkerballer as they see fit.
“(Ramirez) does give us the flexibility to start Masterson if that’s ultimately what we feel is in the best interests of the club,” said Epstein. “Both Masterson and Ramirez dominate right-handed hitters. In that way, Ramirez could potentially replace Masterson in the ‘pen.”
In that sense, Ramirez also offers the Sox greater depth from which to trade, whether it be Masterson or another young pitcher in a deal for a catcher.
The trade underscores the team’s broad commitment to youth, specifically Ellsbury. Crisp actually accumulated slightly better offensive numbers (.283 average, .344 OBP, .407 slugging) than Ellsbury (.280, .336, .394).
Now, following a postseason in which he conceded his starting job to Crisp, Ellsbury can enter the 2009 season without looking over his shoulder. The team’s commitment to him as the everyday centerfielder is clear.
“Expectations were probably unreasonably high for him given the numbers he put up in a very small sample in the 2007 postseason,” said Epstein. “One thing we like about young players, especially young players who work hard like Jacoby does, is they get better. They get better with opportunities.
“He’ll certainly have a chance to play next year, and to continue to improve his offensive game. Obviously, his defense and baserunning are already championship caliber. As he grows into his swing and continues to figure it out from an offensive standpoint, I think we’re going to really see a dynamic player.”
Crisp believes that his departure was a necessary element in allowing Ellsbury to emerge as that kind of dynamic force.
“We didn’t get a full idea of what he was capable of (in 2008),” said Crisp. “But I think this year coming up, with him playing everyday, hopefully he’ll have a great season and be able to show everybody that he’s going to be in the big leagues for a very long as a starter—there’s no doubt he’s going to be in the big leagues for a very long time—but as a premier player in the big leagues. It’s nice for me to kind of move aside and get out of the way to allow that.”
RED SOX RUN PREVENTION
Epstein was sure to pronounce his appreciation for the Crisp’s work in Boston and his contributions to the 2007 championship team. In particular, the Sox G.M. praised Crisp’s outfield defense that season, when he seemed to make a highlight reel catch almost every night while shaving points off his team’s ERA.
Yet it seemed interesting that Epstein kept discussing Crisp’s outfield defense in 2007, rather than his defense over the past two seasons. There was a reason for the omission.
By most measures, Crisp was among the best—if not the best—outfielders in baseball in 2007. According to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, which analyzes every play to determine a player’s defensive contributions, Crisp saved 26 more bases than the average centerfielder in 2007, best in the majors.
In 2008, however, he saved two fewer bases than the average centerfielder, as his defense regressed. Ellsbury, meanwhile, delivered outstanding defense from all three outfield positions, totaling 22 saved bases. He was, simply put, a vastly better defender than Crisp last year, further eroding the case for keeping Crisp.
Of course, back in an everyday role, Crisp may well restore his status as an elite defender. But even if that happens, Ellsbury seems a good bet to enjoy that stature as well.
A.J. BURNETT / DEREK LOWE / MARK TEIXEIRA
On the one hand, the Sox liberated almost $6 million in payroll. The team is no longer on the hook for the $6.25 million owed to Crisp ($5.75 million salary and $500,000 buyout for 2010). Ramirez, meanwhile, comes on the cheap, a pitcher who is not yet eligible for salary arbitration who is in line for roughly $500,000 in 2009.
The savings could be applied to one of the big-ticket items at the free-agent mall. And while the Sox are operating from a position of strength this winter, with a roster that permits them to shop based more on choice than need, they are once again following a standard pattern of investigating every possible avenue towards improvement.
This winter, that means a careful examination of Mark Teixeira, who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory, as well as A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe.
Teixeira is such a compelling talent—one of just four players to hit at least 200 homers in his first six big-league seasons, and at age 28, a hitter who should have several prime seasons in front of him—that the Sox may well scrape the coffers in an effort to land him.
Both Burnett and Lowe, meanwhile, have demonstrated an ability to win in the American League East, the former as a member of the Blue Jays over the past three years, the latter with the Sox from 1997-2004.
Burnett features the type of electric arsenal—a high-90s fastball, devastating curve and complementary changeup—that fits the profile of a dominating October pitcher.
Since leaving the Sox following the 2004 World Series, Lowe has been one of the most dependable pitchers in baseball. He is one of just four hurlers (along with Brandon Webb, Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt) to pitch at least 190 innings with an ERA under 4.00 in each of the last four years.
Even so, the fact that the team now has added to its pitching depth (at least in theory—apparent depth often does not translate to actual depth) with the acquisition of Ramirez further reduces the need to acquire a high-end starter, given the team’s freedom to consider Masterson or Buchholz for the fifth starter spot.
That does not mean that the Sox won’t continue to explore whether there is a financial match with the two pitchers. But it does make it easier for the Sox, who already have a compelling top of the rotation (Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka) for any postseason series, to define their end point in any bidding.
ROCCO BALDELLI / GABE KAPLER
Just a guess, but free-agent Jay Payton won’t be walking through the door to play the role of right-handed fourth-outfielder next year in Boston. The Sox plan to look outside the organization to find a player capable of handling left-handed pitching who will be capable of providing solid defense in centerfield.
Few free agents fit that profile, part of the reason why the Royals were eager to acquire Crisp. But there are two who do, and both have interesting Sox connections.
Gabe Kapler, of course, reveled in his time in Boston from 2003-2006. Following a one-year retirement in which he managed Boston’s Single-A affiliate in Greenville, the 33-year-old returned to the majors in 2008 and hit .301 with an .838 OPS in 96 games while playing all three outfield positions for the Brewers.
The 27-year-old Baldelli, a Rhode Island native, is a tremendous potential talent, but a mitochondrial disease makes it difficult to know what kind of contribution he might be able to make on the field. It is unknown whether his condition, which led to bouts of exhaustion, will permit him to stay on the field with the needed frequency to serve as an outfield reserve.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.